A strike is brewing at the University of Canberra for the first time in more than a decade as tensions over pay and "crushing" pressure on young academics comes to a head.
At the centre of the dispute between the chancellery and staff is a scheme introduced by the university to fast-track early career researchers into senior professor roles.
But what is sold as a drawcard is also known around campus as the "burn and churn" program or the "seven-year probation" and some professors fear it is exploiting their junior colleagues.
Unique in Australia but similar to some programs in the US, the assistant professor scheme offers a shorter, seven-year pathway to the role of associate professor (and higher wages), via two performance reviews.
The catch is that assistant professors can be fired early if the university decides they won't make the ranks of associate professor, meaning talented lecturers are often lost to their faculties.
"Once you're in the scheme, there's no way out," psychology professor Iain Walker said.
"You can't stop halfway at senior lecturer [level], which is actually where most people in academia end their career. ... It's all or nothing; that's causing exceptional stress."
Staff who spoke to The Canberra Times said that they felt pressured to pump out research to survive, working long nights and weekends while balancing an effectively full-time teacher load.
This month, a letter from the university's professoriate, signed by about 30 professors, has called for the program to be axed, citing its debilitating toll on junior colleagues and loss of talent for the university. The National Tertiary Education Union has also demanded the scheme be abandoned as enterprise bargaining boils over into a motion to strike.
But the university stands by the program, telling The Canberra Times 10 of its top 20 researchers are either assistant professors or began as assistant professors.
"[It demonstrates] the strength of the program and ... the accelerated career trajectory for academics," a spokesman said.
He also pointed to the university's climbing world rankings, driven largely by research output.
While the university did not provide the number of academics to successfully complete the scheme, the union said at least half of the assistant professors "put through the wringer" ended up without a job.
"No temporary ‘sugar hit’ in research rankings is worth the human cost of the assistant professor scheme," UC union president Craig Applegate said.
Assistant professor Eamon Merrick, who is leaving the scheme early, said it had been "heart-wrenching" to watch his colleagues build a life in Canberra, starting families and buying houses, only to be told they hadn't made the cut.
"There's some amazing academics working themselves to death trying to pass that review, we're all working evenings, weekends, suddenly you have to leave," he said.
"You give a lot of yourself to your students, to your work ... and our research makes the university money, but when you hear assistant professors called a burn and churn strategy by [management] itself, it's pretty demoralising."
Like most academics who spoke about the scheme, Dr Merrick said it had good intentions, but it would take coordinated mentorship and support to run properly - something he said was advertised but never delivered.
Without a senior colleague supervising their work, some assistant professors found it almost impossible to pull in research funding. Dr Merrick attracted investment by building a track record of small-scale pilot studies but his repeated requests for a mentor were only answered two years into the scheme, thanks to a supportive new faculty head.
One academic, who has since left the scheme for another university and did not wish to be named, said she worked on average 60- to 70-hour weeks at UC to meet the "exhausting" demands of the assistant professor workload and still didn't feel she was doing enough.
"You have to be almost superhuman, people had health issues, anxiety," she said.
"Academia always has high workload but not like this."
Since leaving the university, she said her research had skyrocketed and her workload reduced from teaching three courses a semester on average to one.
Many who had stayed behind in the scheme now felt "trapped", the academic said, and reported things had gotten worse.
"No one speaks out about it but management need to be held to account I think, a lot of people are being exploited.
"Some of the people they let go were top performers, I thought 'what chance do I have?'. Often it was just a letter, there was no feedback, no conversation, sometimes they didn't even get a contract expiry date, they had to call to find out if they could come into work the next day."
Professor Walker agreed the scheme seemed to depend on a failure rate as not everyone could get through without making the university "top heavy" in the professor ranks.
"I'd hate to think it was [exploiting] people by design, that's not what we're about," he said.
"There needs to be a way of keeping those performing well at the [lower] level. They are immensely valuable."
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Last month, union delegates walked out of an enterprise bargaining meeting in frustration after the university repeatedly failed to "take staff concerns seriously". A few weeks later, staff moved a motion to begin action for a strike, which could happen as early as October 17.
Union officials say there is "a lot of anger on campus" as pay continues to lag behind the rest of the sector and workloads pile up on the desks of academic and professional staff.
Earlier this year, the university finished up a "voluntary separation program" in which it spent more than $7 million paying staff to resign amid the federal government's funding freeze.
But while the people had disappeared, the work hadn't, Dr Applegate said.
Professor Walker said that, given the time lapse in research between writing and publication, it was likely some of the problems hitting overworked academics now wouldn't be reflected in university rankings for another two or three years.
Of particular concern, he said, was the potentially discriminatory effect of the assistant professor scheme on women, who often reported their research momentum - and so survival at the university - was jeopardised by maternity leave.
The university did not say whether the scheme had been reviewed since it was first brought in almost 10 years ago. It is understood a number of assistant professors have been asked to attend feedback sessions in the past week.